Skip to main content

Home Department

Volume 464: debated on Monday 15 October 2007

The Secretary of State was asked—

Police Time

1. What steps she is taking to reduce the time it takes police officers to return to their beat after making arrests. (157277)

2. What steps she is taking to reduce the time it takes police officers to return to their beat after making arrests. (157278)

We are delivering a wide range of measures to enable officers to return to their beat after making arrests more quickly, from better working practices in custody suites to a new £50 million fund to give the police access to 21st-century crime fighting technologies. One such innovation is the 1,000 new mobile computers that we intend to roll out this year, followed by a further 10,000 more next year. Those units, which reduce unnecessary trips back to police stations, have been shown to increase the time officers spend on front-line duties by up to 54 minutes per officer per day.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I spent part of the summer working with the West Midlands police, and at every level, from superintendent to custody suite, the issue of form filling was raised time and again. Can she reassure me that once information has been put into those computers, there will not be a requirement to repeat and repeat the process? Overwhelmingly, the frustration expressed to me by officers was that they had to repeat the same information on form after form.

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I am glad that she has been able, through the parliamentary police scheme, to spend time with officers on the front line. One of the major benefits of the mobile and hand-held machines that we are making much more widely available to police forces and individual police officers is the ability not just to enter information, but to have it ready populated into forms, which can then be much more easily transferred into other forms or case file preparation. I can give my hon. Friend the assurance she seeks; that concern is one of the reasons for the extra £50 million capital investment in this area.

In congratulating Lancashire constabulary on coming top of the policing results last week, will the Minister tell us what steps she is taking to reduce the time it takes for police officers to return to the beat after making arrests? That is a particular problem in my area.

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the excellent progress being made by the Lancashire force, which, of course, came at the same time as we were able to publish the police assessments showing that progress is being made across the board in improving policing. She is also right to say that it is important for the increased numbers of police officers, supported by police community support officers and increasingly by civilian officers, to be able to focus their attention on the front line, and be visible and accountable, as local communities want them to be. That is why it is important that we are investing in the increased use of technology, and why we have asked Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the chief inspector of constabulary, to look specifically at bureaucracy and what we can do to free up police officers so that they can focus their attention on the front line. We welcome Sir Ronnie’s interim report; we will look closely at his recommendations and at how he develops them in his final report, which we are expecting early next year.

I can tell the Home Secretary that those of us who practise in the criminal courts know that many of the records made are never seen again, and are basically designed to protect the reputation of the police authority against complaints. Given that, I suggest that an awful lot of the records could simply be dictated by an officer on to a secure tape, and not subsequently transcribed unless there is some form of complaint or inquiry. That would save a great deal of time.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes a very interesting suggestion, and one of the areas that police officers have identified as time-consuming is case file preparation. That is why considerable progress is already being made in London through the implementation of new guidance on how that progress can be sped up—for example, by saving about an hour and a half in the preparation of each case file. Given that we have made a commitment to look further at how we can extend that process, and how we can make more progress in that area, I am sure that Sir Ronnie will want to consider carefully the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s proposal.

Some of us are sufficiently middle aged to have practised in the courts before the introduction of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. Appropriate arrests are right, but so are appropriate convictions. Before the introduction of the Act, defence counsel could often secure acquittal simply because police officers had not had the time to write up their notebooks properly and ensure that they got everything in order. When cases came to trial, there were therefore various gaps. There has to be a balance. If we are to secure convictions, the paperwork has to be done correctly; otherwise we pay the penalty in the Crown court, down the other end.

The hon. Gentleman’s words are wise. Of course, as well as the improvements that we hope and believe that we can make to case file preparation, we are also currently considering a review of the provisions of the 1984 Act, precisely to get the balance right between ensuring that convictions, when appropriate, can be secured, and reducing any bureaucracy that is associated with that Act. We have been working on that since March, and have already had many positive suggestions, which we will consider how to introduce.

F division of South Wales police, which covers my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), has introduced a new scheme for prioritising calls to police headquarters so that priorities 1 and 2 go to response teams, priorities 4 and 5 go to community teams and community support officers, and priority 3 calls are picked up by whoever has spare capacity. That prioritisation has reduced the amount of paperwork and previously wasted response time to calls. Could that scheme be taken up by other police forces throughout the country?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which Sir Ronnie Flanagan also made. Sometimes, changes in business processes—for responding to the public and for carrying out policing—can be as effective in helping to free up time as a straightforward look at paperwork. My hon. Friend makes an interesting proposal and describes an interesting experience; I am sure that Sir Ronnie would want to consider carefully how it can be shared more widely across the country. As my hon. Friend makes clear, it all depends on the increasing availability of police officers who are focused on our neighbourhoods. That is where neighbourhood policing, to which we are committed and which already covers three quarters of the country, has an important contribution to make.

After 10 years, five Labour Home Secretaries and five red tape reviews, the police still spend more time on paperwork than on patrol. To the amazement of beat officers, Ministers claim that they have abolished 9,000 forms. Given that the Government have got “previous” on dodgy data, will the Home Secretary today publish the list of those alleged 9,000 forms?

I thought that it would not be too long before the practical and sensible approach that hon. Members of all parties had taken to this issue was destroyed—and I did not have to wait long.

We want to ensure that our increased numbers of police officers spend the maximum amount of time on the beat, doing things that are important for communities. That is why we have not only made changes, including removing forms, but asked Sir Ronnie to examine the matter carefully and ensure that we make even more progress. I note that the police performance assessment framework results published last week show that the amount of time spent on front-line policing has increased for the third consecutive year. Not only we, but—more importantly—the communities that the police officers serve will welcome that.

Police Bureaucracy

As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary suggested, we have made good progress in reducing police bureaucracy, with improvements to, for example, working processes, work force modernisation and using new technology.

What plans does the Minister have for making police forces more locally accountable to ensure that the time police spend on the beat can be determined according to local requirements?

The hon. Gentleman knows that one of the key strands of Ronnie Flanagan’s review is local accountability. He has not waxed lyrical on it in the interim report, but he will by the end of the year, or January. If the hon. Gentleman has ideas about accountability, he is welcome to submit them to the review; I am sure that Sir Ronnie would welcome his input.

Would not one of the best ways of securing such efficiencies be to give officers the incentive of a reasonable pay settlement this year? Will the Minister remind us of the state of play in the arbitration process, and does he not agree that it is only reasonable for the outcome of arbitration to be binding?

As my hon. Friend will know, the arbitration panel is due to report on 2 November, and it would be entirely unreasonable of me to pass judgment on any aspect of the settlement while it is being dealt with by arbitration.

Can the Minister explain how police bureaucracy has reached such a point that a nine-year-old boy in my constituency fishing out of season in a royal park had to be subjected to the full process of caution, a stop-and-search procedure and the issue of statutory forms in order to be advised to fish at another time of year?

I always take Liberal Democrat renditions of particular stories with a pinch of salt—[Hon. Members: “Renditions?”] Yes, renditions, extraordinary or otherwise. However, if the hon. Gentleman gives me the details of the case, I shall certainly look into it.

Does the Minister accept that one of the worst examples of police bureaucracy is the requirement for a senior officer to spend a great deal of time on an appraisal before a suspect can be closely monitored? Such a procedure was thought unnecessary before the introduction of the Human Rights Act 1998.

Again, I am not entirely sure that I understand the import of the question. I should have thought that full assessment of whether people should be duly monitored in custody was quite important. If I have missed the point, perhaps we can talk about it afterwards, and I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman and the House receive a full response.

In the past week the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, has said that it is absolutely ridiculous that it now takes two officers an entire tour of duty to process just one arrest, because of Government-imposed burdens. Yet rather than dealing with the bureaucracy, the Government’s solution is to give cautions to violent criminals and issue penalty notices like parking tickets. I do not know whether this is “Life on Mars”, but are not Ministers simply living on another planet?

Sadly, I thought that I could trust the hon. Gentleman far more than I could trust the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) when it came to the rendition of particular speeches. That is an utterly unfair characterisation of what I thought was a very good speech by the commissioner, which followed the grain both of what Sir Ronnie has said and of what we have already done, and intend to do, about bureaucracy. I think that it is the hon. Gentleman who needs to decide what planet he is on.

Last year in Surrey, just over 8,000 burglaries were reported, and only 800—10 per cent.—were detected successfully, which means that a burglar had a 90 per cent. chance of getting away with it. Does the Minister agree that that is an appalling figure, and does he think that bureaucracy may have something to do with it?

I think that across a range of crimes, detection rates could and should be significantly higher than they are. The hon. Gentleman, perhaps in remiss fashion, forgot to mention that Surrey has an outstanding force, as was shown by the performance framework last week. None the less, collectively we—central Government, local government and all agencies—need to do more about the detection of all crime, not just burglary in Surrey.

Replica Firearms

As of 1 October, measures from the Government's Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 were introduced which emphasise the Government's determination to crack down on the problem of replica firearms. They include making it an offence to manufacture, import or sell realistic imitation firearms, increasing the maximum sentence for carrying any imitation firearm in public without reasonable excuse from six to 12 months, and ensuring that only persons aged 18 or over can purchase such replicas.

I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said so far. The Rhys Jones murder shocked Merseyside and other areas. Some replica firearms can be reconverted to live firearms. We do not know yet whether that process was involved in the Rhys Jones murder, but the murder certainly seems to have been related to rejuvenated firearms and gun culture. In Merseyside, the Liverpool Echo is running a campaign—rightly, in my view—on what more can be done about the link between firearms, replica or otherwise, and gang culture. What further observations can my right hon. Friend make about that issue?

My hon. Friend is right to say that the murder of Rhys Jones was tragic, and very serious for his community. We all hope that the case will be brought to a conclusion as soon as possible. He is also right to say that the case identified something that I had already spoken to the House about in July—our need to focus on serious violence, particularly that which relates to guns and gangs. That is why I have made available £1 million and set up the tackling gangs action plan, and I am pleased that the deputy chief constable of Merseyside police, Jon Murphy, is now leading that work. We are increasing activity in the neighbourhoods in Merseyside, Greater Manchester, Birmingham and London where most gun and gang-related violence occurs. As a result of the way in which local police forces, local authorities and my Government colleagues have engaged in that work, I am optimistic that we will see important results very quickly.

I welcome the action being taken against replica guns, but will the Home Secretary say something about the number of real guns being smuggled into the country? Why are there nine times as many customs officers now dealing with cigarette smuggling as there are dealing with the illegal trade in real guns? Will she assure the House today that any new national border force will have real police powers and the necessary resources to deal with this awful trade in such dangerous weapons?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have asked the Serious Organised Crime Agency to prioritise investigating the illegal firearms trade, and I am content that that is happening. I am pleased that, as a result of the cross-Government work that is part of the tackling gangs action plan, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has agreed to prioritise intelligence gathering about, and catching, those who are importing firearms. Through the work of those organisations, and the Border and Immigration Agency, in tasking the new unified border force that we will be putting in place, we will be able to have a bigger impact than previously on the international trade in guns, which has achieved a new priority in the work of all those agencies.

The whole House appreciates the extra measures concerning replica guns, but might there be a real strengthening of border controls so that people know that if they purchase guns legally abroad, it will be illegal to bring them into this country?

My hon. Friend makes two important points. First, I hope that he is reassured that the agencies involved in the trade and border control of guns will be upping their game in this area. Secondly, he raises an important point about the availability of imitation and replica firearms in the rest of Europe. This country has the toughest firearms legislation, and it is right for us to lead the way, as we are in Europe, in trying to strengthen the European weapons directive to cover the production and sale of realistic imitation firearms in other European countries where they can be too easily bought and brought into this country. I pay particular tribute to Arlene McCarthy MEP for leading that work in the European Parliament.

After the tragic death of Rhys Jones, the Home Secretary made the extraordinary claim that

“statistics aren’t a help but gun crime is down”.

That is an extraordinary claim. This year’s Home Office report contains one set of figures that cannot be rigged: gunshot woundings. The figures disclose that gun-related killings and injuries have increased fourfold since 1998. Does the Home Secretary recognise that if she cannot even count gun crime, she certainly cannot cut it?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, what I actually said is that gun crime has decreased by 13 per cent. in the past year. That is correct, but what I also made very clear—and have made clear, too, in my subsequent actions—is that I believe that the use of guns is a serious problem, particularly in relation to gang-related violence and their use by young people. That is why my priorities have been not only extra investment, but extra action focused on the areas where it is most likely to make a difference, and why that action is now under way.

That does not get us past the fact that gun crime has quadrupled under the right hon. Lady’s party’s Government. She also claimed that Labour’s “tough”—to use her word—five-year minimum sentence for anyone over 18 possessing a gun is serving as a deterrent, so will she explain why the five-year sentence became law for 18 to 21-year-olds only this year, rather than four years ago when the original law came into force, and why the law is so riddled with loopholes that only one in five convictions of over-21-year-olds involves the enforcement of that five-year minimum sentence? Is that her idea of being tough on gun crime?

What I do know is that in 1995 the average sentence for the possession of guns was 12 months, and that, following the action that this Government have taken, the average sentence is now more than 47 months. That is because we have been willing not only to take the tough decisions, but to put them through the House by voting for them—often in the face of opposition from both main Opposition parties—and then to put them into operation.

Police Firearms

All police use of firearms is subject to the usual law on the use of force. Under section 3 of the Criminal Law Act 1967, the police may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances to effect an arrest or to prevent crime.

With more and more guns in circulation and in the hands of criminals, and an increasing terrorism threat, our armed police are being asked almost every day to make the toughest decision of all: whether to open fire. Will the Minister consider looking at having rules of engagement guides across the United Kingdom, as was the case with our security forces in Northern Ireland, to ensure that clarity is given both to the public and to the police about exactly where they stand, and so that if there are any incidents no one gets hung out to dry and everyone gets protected?

I certainly accept the hon. Gentleman’s point about that split-second decision that our armed police have to make in such circumstances; it is a critical decision. The Association of Chief Police Officers already sets such guidelines and—with all due humility—I think that the House is happier that that is the case than it would be for me or any other Minister to set such guidelines.

Is it not now more common in Britain for police officers to carry guns—and, particularly following the Jean Charles de Menezes incident, is it not the case that people need to have confidence about the moment of decision when they are used? There might be benefit in having a wider public debate, and greater public awareness of how police come to such split-second decisions and in what circumstances they can decide to shoot.

I think that, overwhelmingly, the public do have that confidence. That is borne out, at least in part, by the figures. Although, as has been suggested, there has been a significant increase in the number of incidents in which armed police were deployed, the number of such authorised operations compared with the number of incidents involving the actual use of firearms was about 0.04 per cent. in 1996-97 and 0.048 per cent. in the last full year, 2005-06. There means a range of five to nine incidents when firearms were actually used. Therefore, notwithstanding events such as those at Stockwell, such confidence exists, and if there needs to be more awareness, we can look into that.

National DNA Database

7. What recent estimate she has made of the number of people whose DNA is held on the national database who have committed no offence. (157283)

Data obtained from the police national computer in June 2006 provides the latest available information on this issue, but I have asked officials to provide more up-to-date information as soon as that is available, and I have also asked that data both on those arrested but not subsequently convicted and on those who have been convicted be included in the DNA database annual report from early next year.

The Minister may be aware of the case of my constituent, 75-year-old Geoffrey Orchard, who was wrongfully arrested and received a written apology from the police, but who still cannot get his DNA information removed from the database. I know that the Minister will say that she cannot do anything about that case, but does she really understand the enormous extent to which good will and support for the police and for her Department are being undermined by a system in which DNA information is being recorded aggressively, but removed in a haphazard way and on a discretionary basis, dependent on police force area?

It is worth stressing that a person’s DNA being on the database does not suggest guilt; it is simply a registration of their DNA and basic biographical information. It is also worth asking which of the crimes solved thanks to the DNA database—the 452 homicides, the 644 rapes and the more than 8,000 domestic burglaries—the hon. Gentleman wishes had not been resolved as a result.

Does the Minister agree with Lord Sedley about the potential benefits of a DNA database of all citizens? If so, will she and the Home Secretary volunteer samples to boost the database and help in the elimination of cold-case suspects in drug and other offences?

There are no Government plans for a universal database such as Lord Justice Sedley has suggested. However, I and other Ministers would welcome a debate about the DNA database, which has grown. Unlike the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), I studied it when it came into force—when I was doing A-levels—so we have different perspectives on the matter. Because it has grown to include more than 4 million people, it is important that we get the chance to debate how we proceed. I have already asked officials to look at the design of the forms on which people give their permission—if they have given it voluntarily—for that information to remain permanently on the database.

Antisocial Behaviour

We have provided practitioners with a toolkit to tackle antisocial behaviour, which they operate according to local priorities. In Wirral, a multidisciplinary antisocial behaviour team operates many initiatives, based on prevention and enforcement, that engage, educate and promote awareness among young people, engage with residents and tackle antisocial behaviour in families. Neighbourhood policing is also important in combating antisocial behaviour, as I witnessed on my visit to Bromborough police station in Wirral.

Does my hon. Friend recall from his visits to Wirral that what bothers my constituents in particular about local policing is that officers are constantly withdrawn—albeit to important duties elsewhere on Merseyside—and that that situation will be greatly exacerbated when Liverpool is European capital of culture in 2008, especially in the absence of more Home Office funding? Does he agree, however, that a key way of combating antisocial behaviour is not just bobbies on the beat and more laws, but considerably less tolerance?

One of the key reforms that the Government have introduced is neighbourhood policing, which, as my hon. Friend knows, has been introduced in every area from April 2007. However, from April 2008 there will be a dedicated neighbourhood policing team in every area, which means that his constituents in Wirral, as elsewhere, will know that officers who are supposed to be—and who one would expect to be—in their area, are there, policing. With him, I saw for myself the important and good work that police officers and police community support officers are doing in Wirral. He will be reassured to know that they told me that their approach is to ensure that they enforce the law, and to have zero tolerance of the so-called lesser offences that, as he knows, are often the very ones that drive our constituents mad.

Had my hon. Friend stopped two minutes before visiting my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman), he could have visited a superb pubwatch scheme run by publicans in Neston and supported directly by the Neston police. One aspect of the scheme that has helped tremendously has been the roll-out, with the support of Cheshire police, of CCTV, thereby providing a fantastic network. Will the Minister help to promote such schemes and expand them to other parts? I am thinking especially of the sharing of information across the border with the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South.

Neston sounds like a place where I should have stopped. Pubwatch schemes up and down the country provide a huge benefit not only to licensed premises but to local communities in which they operate. The schemes operate in many different ways in different areas, and it is for local areas to decide the best way for their schemes to operate. The most successful schemes share information not only with pubs and licensed premises in their own area, but across borders. I am sure that people from the pubwatch scheme in Neston will have heard what my hon. Friend has to say.

Inward Migration

9. What the level of net migration into the UK was in each of the last three years; and what her estimate is for the current year. (157285)

10. What recent estimate she has made of projected levels of net migration into the UK over the next five years. (157286)

In the year to mid-2006, net migration into the UK was 176,000, which was about 82,000 lower than the year before and in line with the year before that. Projections are a matter for the Office for National Statistics.

I thank the Minister for that response. With all due respect, the Government said that 13,000 people would come and yet well in excess of 600,000 have done so, putting intolerable pressure on local authorities, schools, houses, jobs and the national health service. The Government made this problem. What are they going to do to resolve it?

The report to which I think the hon. Gentleman refers was one by the university of London, not by the Government. He is saying that in making immigration decisions we need to take into account not only the economic benefits to Britain, but the wider consequences. That is why, when we begin introducing the points-based system in 140 days’ time, we will be listening not only to the voice of the business community when we take those decisions, but to the voice of public servants.

During the Labour party conference, a member of the Government, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), made comments that were widely reported in the press. He said that as far as immigration is concerned, people

“have no real confidence in official figures”.

Given that no Minister rebutted that statement at the time, will the Minister confirm that he agrees with his colleague? After a decade in power, when precisely will the Government sort their act out on this crucial issue?

My own position on Home Office figures is well documented. The most important figures, which sit at the heart of the hon. Gentleman’s question, are how many people are coming into this country and how many are going out of it. As he will know, that became a difficult number to quantify when the Conservative party phased out exit controls in 1994. That policy was wrong, which is why we are reintroducing exit controls, along with systems to count people in and out of the country. I hope that the Conservative party will support that approach.

In recent years, Aberdeen and the north-east of Scotland have had a large influx of people from the new EU states, particularly Poland. Does the Minister accept that such migration can often be a force for good? Many of those people are settling in some of our council estates and taking houses that previously could not be let to the indigenous population, and as a result the estates are now seeing some regeneration.

My hon. Friend is right. The former First Minister, Jack McConnell, was a pioneer of measures to attract new foreign students to Scotland. That policy is enormously important because international education brings about £12.5 billion a year into our economy. Along with the economic contribution that migrants make, which was worth about £6 billion in 2006, in parts of our economy migration is incredibly important.

Does the Minister accept that although inward migration in small doses might well be beneficial to the economy, the scale of inward migration that areas such as my own have experienced undermines our ambitions to make my constituency a zero-unemployment zone, because jobs that are made available as a result of Government activity are overwhelmingly then filled by inward migrants, who are often better skilled than those whom we are trying, with considerable effort, to get into jobs? Will he take that into account when determining how many people should be allowed to enter in future?

Absolutely. That is why I said, in response to the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), that when we decide how many points new migrants will need to come into this country—when we introduce the points system next year—we must not only listen to the voices of the business community and of higher and further education, but consider the wider impact of migration. It is only by balancing those two things that we can reach a position where we can seek a level of migration that “maximises the benefits”. Those are not my words, but those of the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green).

Does the Minister agree that while we have seen significant migration from eastern Europe since the accession of the seven states in 2004—migration that the Government certainly did not foresee—we have also seen significant increases in the number of work permits issued to workers from outside the EU, which has now increased to more than double the figure in 1997? That number is entirely within the control of the Government, so when will they take hold of this issue and draw the link between migration and the sort of issues raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) and housing demand, which the Government have revised upwards and now stands at one third of housing demand? When will the Government stop talking and making a pretence of acting, and do something? Finally, will the Minister say whether he wants to see the figures limited or reduced?

The hon. Gentleman is once again rehearsing the arguments for a cap on migration, which we have heard for a couple of years now from Conservative Members. It started as a cap on refugees in 2005, but that policy was put in the bin by the hon. Member for Ashford in December. Then we heard about a cap on overall immigration, but we then heard in August that that would be only on economic migrants from outside the European economic area.; in other words, it would not include EEA nationals, dependants or students. In fact, it would not touch 80 per cent. of the inflow last year. The hon. Gentleman will therefore forgive me if I am unclear about precisely what he and his party are proposing.

Does the Minister accept that many of those who raise such concerns about migration, especially those on the Opposition Benches, are actually hiding very negative attitudes towards ethnic diversity in our society? Does he also agree that much of the economic success of London and the efficiency of its public services is due to people who have made their homes here and made it the prosperous city that it is? We should pay tribute to them for the hard work that they do and the commitment that they make to the wider community.

My hon. Friend has been in the House for far longer than I have, so he will have greater insight into the answer to his first question. On his second question, he is right when we consider the number of work permits for people to come and serve in our national health service, which we have expanded at record pace over the past 10 years. Around a third of work permits are issued to people to work in health and medical science and their contribution has been instrumental in improving the health service to its position today.

Will the Minister accept that immigration is one of the major concerns in the eyes of the electorate? It has been in position 1, 2 or 3 for the past two years. It affects housing, education, law and order and the health service. Will he try to make the balance between those leaving the country and those coming in more equal, so that we do not dramatically increase the responsibilities of this country? I believe that the Minister shares my concern, so will he put it into practice?

I am now completely lost. When the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who is not in his place, had to drag his Front Benchers to Westminster Hall before the summer to interrogate them on how the Conservative party would set a cap, he proposed a cap that would mean zero net migration. The hon. Member for Ashford said that he could see no magic in that and that there

“I must part company with him”.

So the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) will forgive me if I am now slightly confused about the policy that the Opposition propose. Indeed, I am not alone in that. When the hon. Member for Surrey Heath was asked 14 days ago whether a Conservative Government would reduce migration, he said no. Thirteen days ago, presumably after an encounter with the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), he said that the

“one word answer was an inaccurate way of explaining what immigration policy was…it wasn’t the perfect answer, I absolutely grant you that, yes.”

May I draw the Minister’s attention to a business in my constituency that relies on work permits to get specialised staff? It is experiencing real problems with the Border and Immigration Agency over repeated checks on the existence and size of the business, which are getting in the way of running an economically viable business.

If my hon. Friend has specific concerns into which I can look I shall be happy to do so. As part of the introduction of the points system next year, businesses that want to sponsor migrants to this country will need a licence and I hope that will make the system both tougher and more efficient.

When looking at net migration the Minister will obviously take into consideration those coming in from Romania and Bulgaria—people for whom special arrangements were put in place. Can he tell us now, or will he report in the future, about the lessons learned from the procedures put in place for Romania and Bulgaria and tell us whether they might inform immigration policy in future?

The decision on whether restrictions on Romania and Bulgaria should remain in future is of course a matter for the Cabinet. That decision will come up in the next month or two in line with our commitment to review restrictions within 12 months of their introduction. I think the restrictions have been successful, but when a decision is made we will of course publish the evidence on which it has been made—evidence about the benefits of migration as well as evidence about the wider impacts—to the House and the public.

I am not surprised that the Minister is confused, because he seems to spend so much time reading the details of our policy that he has not had time to develop his own. He knows that he is not convincing anyone with his policy, because his private Home Office research, which has fallen into my hands, tells him so. It says:

“Net satisfaction for the way that the Government is dealing with immigration is -54.”

Can he confirm his response to the crisis? The first point that the Government make in response, in their private document, is that regional press officers are

“now in place in all regions”.

Not immigration officers, not police officers, but press officers. Does the Minister recognise that such a response is precisely why the immigration system is in crisis and precisely why the Government’s reputation is shot to pieces?

That was a hopeless attack on the Government’s immigration policy. It is not to the hon. Gentleman’s credit to make such arguments. He should look at the introduction of the points system, advised independently for the first time, at the sweeping changes to our border security over the next 12 months and at the introduction of ID cards on a compulsory basis for foreign nationals. Those are the measures that will render our immigration system fit for the future. Those are the dimensions of our policy that he should be debating.

Drug Trafficking

The Government have delivered a wide range of effective measures to reduce levels of drug trafficking since 1997. They include tough new legislation, an increase in convictions for those caught drug trafficking, investment in global anti-narcotics initiatives, the creation of the Serious Organised Crime Agency and a dramatic improvement in our performance on recovery of the proceeds of crime. The Government recently published a consultation paper, “Drugs: Our Community, Your Say”, the responses to which will inform our new drugs strategy to be implemented from April 2008 onwards.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Has he seen what the Evening Standard says today about a new form of cannabis called skunk? Does he have plans to reclassify that drug?

I have seen the front page of the Evening Standard, which refers to the increasing strength of cannabis and the prevalence of skunk. As my hon. Friend knows, the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary have asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to look at the reclassification of cannabis and we await what it has to say.

It is not just drug trafficking that should worry the House; it is human trafficking. Why do the Government not ratify the Council of Europe convention? If they did so, it would become effective legislation. Nine have already done so; one more, and it would become an effective instrument. Why have the Government not done so?

When it comes to trafficking of any sort—drug trafficking or child trafficking, which is an issue of particular interest to the hon. Gentleman—he will know that we must have everything in place to ensure that the ratification of the Council of Europe convention means something. We have measures still to take with respect to law enforcement and victim support. All those services need to be put in place. When they are put in place—we are working towards doing that, as the hon. Gentleman will know—we will be in a position to ratify that Council of Europe convention.

Although I appreciate the concern of the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) about people trafficking, to return to drug trafficking, may I say that the figures given by my hon. Friend the Minister are replicated by those from Brighton and Hove? Is he aware that, as a direct result of Operation Reduction—a combination of policing and drugs treatment—226 drug users have been referred for drug treatment within the past two years? Can he guarantee that that excellent programme’s funding will be extended for a further year?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that she has done in Brighton, and all the people involved in the work that has gone on there. The 226 people whom she refers to in Brighton and Hove form part of the record increase in the number of people going into drug treatment. That is, of course, the result of record investment by the Government in tackling the harm that drugs cause. What has happened in my hon. Friend’s constituency should be replicated across the country. A successful drugs strategy needs tough law enforcement and the education of our young people, and we need to ensure that we get more people into treatment, so that those people who have problems with drugs receive the help that they need.

Does the Minister agree that, in combating drug trafficking, the police and the other agencies should rigorously enforce the existing legislation? Does he also agree with the Association of Chief Police Officers when it described calls by the chief constable of North Wales for the decriminalisation of all drugs as a counsel of despair?

We agree with the ACPO statement, and we disagree with the chief constable of North Wales. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, which gives me the opportunity to put that on the record. Of course, dealing with the problem of drugs in this country requires tough law enforcement nationally and internationally. He will be interested to hear that, only last week, I visited a new initiative undertaken by the Serious Organised Crime Agency, where a maritime analysis operations centre has been set up, working with other European countries and involving the military, to tackle ships that are bringing drugs, generally cocaine, across the Atlantic ocean, to interdict that movement of those drugs. So the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: tough law enforcement must be a part of any successful drug strategy.

I welcome the reduction in the misuse of any drug, whether legal or illegal, but does my hon. Friend the Minister recognise that enforcement action can have unintended consequences, as evidenced by the shift from the smuggling of low-tetrahydrocannabinol-content cannabis from places such as Morocco to the large-scale farming in rented properties of high-THC-content cannabis all across Britain? I can report that, in the past three or four months, Bolton police alone have captured 20 houses where farming is conducted by Thai and Vietnamese criminal gangs.

I accept my hon. Friend’s point that, at times, when the law is enforced in one area, the crime is displaced to another, but the important issue is surely that we enforce the law. If, as he quite rightly points out, we have seen an increase in home-grown cannabis from so-called cannabis farms in domestic properties, the police need to enforce the law rigorously with respect to that. Indeed, they are doing so. The hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) will be interested in the important fact that, when the police have taken tough law enforcement action against cannabis farms, they have often in some circumstances found trafficked children, whom they have then referred on to the appropriate agencies.

Police Numbers

12. What assessment she has made of the likely effect of budgetary plans on future police officer numbers in the east midlands. (157288)

I met the police authority chairs and the chief constables from the east midlands most recently on 6 September, and I shall continue to listen to their views. My hon. Friend will know that no final decisions have been made on police funding settlement for the comprehensive spending review years. Full details of the provisional settlement will be announced in late November or early December.

The five police forces of the east midlands cover a rapidly expanding population of well over 4 million people with a police spend per capita of £157 or about 76 per cent. of the English average of £206 per capita. That makes it very difficult to deliver on policing priorities such as improving protective services. Will the Minister agree to meet representatives of the five authorities—Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire—again to discuss the financial position and to plot out a way ahead for all concerned?

I am happy to do that, and I shall return to that point shortly. It is an error to use a per capita figure for police spending, given the distinct nature of all forces, urban-rural splits and other factors. However, despite that erroneous use of data, I shall of course meet my hon. Friend and his colleagues. I have an extant request for a cross-party meeting from one of our colleagues in Nottingham and a Conservative colleague, but I am more than happy to meet as many east midlands MPs, of whatever hue, as it takes.

Although the announcement that the Minister is prepared to meet MPs is welcome—I am sure that Conservative Members will wish to join in—does he accept that the five regional forces have worked hard to increase their capability and improve their interaction on protective services? Does he acknowledge that the last thing that my constituents in Daventry want is a reduction in the number of police officers, whether it is induced by a shortage of funding or by a conscious decision by the police authority?

I am happy to accept the latter point. The hon. Gentleman will know that across the five forces officer numbers have increased—by the most in Leicestershire, where they have increased by 14-plus per cent. In addition, the numbers of support staff have increased by between 32 and 70 per cent., crime is down in each of the areas, and over the past 10 years Government grant has increased by between 10 and 22 per cent. I am happy to meet MPs from the area and representatives of the five forces to discuss these matters, but that is the context within which those discussions should take place.

Drug Screening

13. What progress has been made in approving a roadside drug screening device for use by police. (157289)

The Forensic Science Service has been engaged in drawing up the detailed specification essential for such a device. The specification will be issued shortly; it will then be for manufacturers to prepare devices in line with that specification and to submit them to the type approval process.

Given the estimates that fully 18 per cent. of drivers killed in road accidents are under the influence of drugs or have traces of drugs in their system, will the Minister explain the inordinate delay in introducing roadside tests, given the fact that permission was given four years ago, in the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003? Why are the Government dragging their heels so much on giving the police the assistance they need to deal effectively with the problem?

The Government are not dragging their heels. The scientists are putting together a specification; when they have done so, it will be made available to manufacturers to enable them to produce a device allowing roadside screening for the presence of certain drugs. The hon. Gentleman will know, however, that the offence is not necessarily the presence of illegal drugs in someone’s body, but the impairment that they cause, and the field impairment test is currently available to police officers to use at the roadside.

Police Time

14. What proposals she has to maximise the amount of time that police officers spend on duty outside their stations. (157290)

My hon. Friend will know from replies to earlier questions that we are using a range of ways to ensure that police officers, including those in Blackpool, spend more time on duty outside their stations. They range from wider implementation of mobile data units to—crucially—the implementation of neighbourhood policing and the additional front-line support provided by police community support officers and other police staff.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he take the opportunity to congratulate Lancashire police force on coming top in this year’s performance assessment? One of the reasons why it came top is the introduction of modern technology; the new personal digital assistants and mobile data terminals allow them to link directly to the main computer to report crime, and give them access to information. That has freed them up for an extra hour every day in which they can be out on the beat.

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend, except for on whether there are things called league tables when it comes to police performance. As a West Ham United fan, I do not recognise league tables of any description; I find that it helps to get me through the football year much more easily. She is right, and I saw much of what she describes when I was in Fleetwood. We had a nice cheese sandwich in the Fleetwood Arms and discussed, among other things, how neighbourhood policing is developing in Lancashire, and the application of personal digital assistants and a range of other IT equipment. Those developments are taking place in police forces across the country, but it is to Lancashire’s great credit that it has led the way in the application of such devices, and in the implementation and roll-out of neighbourhood policing.

Inward Migration

The Home Office has never produced future projections of migration numbers. That is a matter for the Office for National Statistics.

The Minister will be aware that net migration to the UK has included a rising number of foreign criminals. Despite repeated inquiries, I have been unable to obtain answers to the following questions: how many foreign nationals have been detained in UK prisons in the past five years, what was the nature of their offence, and what happened to each prisoner on release from prison? If the Government have nothing to hide, will the Minister today commit to answering those important questions?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the police do not collect crime data by the nationality of the perpetrator, but that is yet another reason why the introduction of ID cards for foreign nationals, which his party supported during proceedings on the UK Borders Bill, is so important. So what a shame it was to see, in the small print of the announcement made by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) in conference week, that he will shut the system down.